Samsung Galaxy Tab a clear challenge to iPad

If you use an Android-operated smartphone, youíll feel at home with the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

This 7-inch tablet that runs on the Android 2.2 operating system is the latest challenger to the iPad. And it hits a nice sweet spot between a regular smartphone and Appleís 9.7-inch device.

Like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab is not a phone - but its front-facing camera allows you to make face-to-face video calls with a free app called Qik thatís similar to Appleís FaceTime.

The Galaxy Tabís screen is super sharp (with 1024-by-600 pixels) thatís on par with a desktop PC monitor or laptop. Because Google is integrated into the phone, it comes with apps found on other Android phones, such as Google Search by voice, Google Maps with Street View, Gtalk, YouTube, Picasa and contacts/calendar synchronization. And it ships with built-in GPS as well, something the iPad doesnít.

The Tab weighs 13.4 ounces and has a responsive touchscreen, on par with the iPadís and better than the Archos 7 and Dell Streak tablets Iíve previously tested.

And while you can squeeze it into your pocket, the Tab is really too big to be your carry-everywhere media player. But its size makes it perfect to take when you travel, where you can surf the Web and watch videos much easier than on a laptop or the bigger and heavier iPad. I took the Galaxy Tab with me on the Green Line and watched a bunch of YouTube videos without any hitches or loading delays. Music and video can be uploaded through a microSD card slot.

My test model came with AT&T on a speedy 3G network. But itís also available through Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile with a variety of service plans. AT&Tís version of the Tab sells for $649 off-contract and you get a choice of monthly data plans - a $14.99 plan with a 250-megabyte cap, and a $25 plan with a 2-gigabyte cap.

The Tab has a speedy 1-gigahertz processor and 512 megabytes of RAM, which makes multitasking a breeze. I loaded a free Zillow app and checked out the latest real estate sales in my neighborhood and then clicked on the Facebook icon to catch up with the latest postings on my wall.

I did a Google-by-voice search to get the latest New York Times [NYT] bestsellers and searched for the best lobster fra diavolo in the North End. I even edited a story with the pre-installed ThinkFree Office app.

Kindle for Android comes preloaded so I was able to easily read e-books.

The Tab comes with Bluetooth capabilities, so you can add a keyboard or a mouse to navigate. But I found it easy to type on the deviceís virtual keyboard. You can also use the built-in Swype app, an amazing feature that allows you to type words with one continuous motion along the keyboard.

If you want to conserve battery time, you can close Bluetooth, the speedy ďWi-Fi NĒ and GPS, and you can also shut down apps with the task manager. The rechargeable battery lasted me a good five hours with heavy use.

A big draw for the Tab is access to 100,000-plus apps on the Android Market. I downloaded more than a dozen free, easy-to-install apps and games. The only problem is that many of the apps were developed for smartphones. Some are stretched out to fit the larger Tab screen or float in the middle while others are limited to mobile-style displays that you canít change to full screen.

You can also buy or rent movies or TV shows from Samsungís Media Hub with prices comparable to Appleís iTunes store. You can also stream movies on the Tab with a Netflix subscription.

The Tab has several other features the iPad doesnít, such as a rear-facing camera. And the Tabís 3.2-megapixel camera with built-in flash takes decent photos. It also supports Adobe Flash Player, which the iPad doesnít.

To sum up, the Galaxy Tab is the perfect size to use comfortably while you travel, even if its screen real estate is only about half that of the iPadís. Theyíre both great products, but if you want the built-in GPS, the rear camera, Adobe Flash Player 10.1 support and memory expansion, only the Tab offers these features. These, plus access to all the Google and Android features, makes the well-engineered Galaxy Tab a device worth owning.